AWP: A Crisis of Governance

By Matt BurriesciOctober 14, 2019

AWP: A Crisis of Governance
FOR THOSE OF YOU following the sordid tale, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) has been going through a bit of a transition recently. In March 2018, after nearly 30 years of service, executive director David Fenza was fired in a hotel lobby in Tampa, at the conclusion of the organization’s annual conference, in full view of many of his peers. He was given no reason for his termination, and the board offered no explanation for his release. Subsequent to a public outcry from AWP members, an article appeared in Publishers Weekly with the provocative headline “Was a hostile work environment behind the firing of AWP’s David Fenza?” 

A few months later, after voicing concerns about management decisions at AWP, Conference Director Christian Teresi left the organization as well. Everyone’s confused about what happened there (including the leadership at AWP). Mr. Teresi was surprised to learn that he was no longer in AWP’s employ after reading an article in Publishers Weekly, which never bothered to confirm this news with Teresi himself, who remained on AWP’s payroll for several months following the article’s publication. When confronted with this paradox, both David Haynes and Interim Director Chloe Schwenke claimed they could not comment on personnel matters, even though both were cited as sources. Haynes, who was directly quoted in the piece, from an email he himself wrote, stated “many articles written about these matters contain inaccuracies and misquotes, some of them substantive.” 

Mr. Teresi published a lengthy essay in LARB that raised several specific and disturbing questions about the organization and its leadership. In November 2018, the board responded in a message to members, saying that “AWP is institutionally and financially strong, and by all organizational indicators is in far better shape than it was six months ago.” 

It seemed all was for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Publishers Weekly ran a nice little puff piece about all the healing going on at the organization’s annual gathering in Portland, and then a glowing piece about the organization’s decision to separate from the University of Maryland 18 months after moving there (which may have been the opposite of the truth, according to Teresi). Then, the big shocker: after an “extensive” national search to find a new director, the organization decided to elevate its interim director, Chloe Schwenke, to the position on a full-time basis. It reminded me of when Dick Cheney set out to find a running mate for George W. Bush.

Then, after getting to know Chloe Schwenke for over a year, and also endorsing her plans and actions as interim director, and after a national search to find a permanent director, which resulted in Schwenke being reappointed to her position, and after five months of Schwenke’s service in that role, AWP’s board, claiming that they “acted quickly,” abruptly fired Schwenke in September 2019. I can’t say for sure if it was in a hotel lobby.

Schwenke’s sudden departure was preceded by the resignations of former board chairs David Haynes and Robin Reagler, who are among those responsible for the current state of affairs at AWP. In September, trustee Mike Astrue, who had previously boasted on Twitter that he “led the committee that recommended Chloe Schwenke as Interim Director,” announced that he would be resigning as well — leaving him, in his words, “more time for my poetry & my puppy.” AWP’s board is presently chaired by Bonnie Culver, also a supporter, according to internal sources, of all of AWP’s decisions over the last two years.

AWP issued no statement about these shake-ups for several days. It was only after Schwenke accused them of discrimination that the board responded. Schwenke fled to the sane and always helpful realm of social media to say that AWP’s board had illegally fired her because she was transgender and that she planned to pursue legal action. Schwenke’s attorney then sent a letter to the board, which, according to Publishers Weekly, had a lot to say about AWP’s finances:

The attorney’s letter to the board denies any mismanagement of finances, stating that Schwenke had informed the board early on that “the increased costs of being independent (with more administrative and financial management overhead) and the associated costs of raising staff salaries to an equitable range for the Washington D.C. area might take as long as three years before reaching financial equilibrium.”

All expenditures were authorized, the letter states, [and] “Dr. Schwenke denies that any spending was unauthorized or improper.”

As is now apparently the custom, AWP’s board terminated its second executive director in just 18 months with no apparent institutional or public relations preparation. Eventually, after more than a dozen past presidents of the board sent requests demanding an explanation, AWP’s board did issue a statement; it, too, had a lot to say about finances:

Given our governance and fiduciary responsibilities on behalf of AWP members, the board acted quickly when it learned of multiple financial and workplace issues and specifically decisions Dr. Schwenke made. The board is working closely with an auditing firm to have a final reconciliation of last year’s financials and, as it does every year, the board will publish those findings as soon as the report is completed.

Even as we work through resolution of issues raised by staff and by a financial review, it is important to state that the endowments held by AWP remain strong.

Let us agree that it is “important to state” that the endowments held by AWP remain strong. But what does all this talk of financial issues mean?

It means that AWP’s finances are a mess, and why anyone should be surprised by this is beyond me. Let’s review the activities of AWP’s board during the past 18 months:

  • The board fired its long-tenured executive director in a hotel lobby, without giving any reason, either to him or to the public.

  • They abruptly severed the organization’s relationship with the University of Maryland (or, according to Teresi, were asked to leave).

  • They attempted — unsuccessfully — to fire their conference director in the pages of Publishers Weekly.

  • They got into a public war of words with an ex-staffer.

  • They engaged numerous consultants, created several new staff positions, and added hundreds of thousands of dollars to their annual operating expenses.

  • They appointed an interim director with no relevant qualifications or experience.

  • They conducted a national search for a new director, only to then elevate their unqualified, inexperienced interim director to the job.

  • Several board members, including officers, abruptly resigned, and the board didn’t let anyone know about it.

  • They oversaw a period of staff exodus, when at least nine staffers left their positions.

  • They removed the executive director they had themselves appointed.

  • One of the two former executive directors threatened to sue the association on social media, claiming that she had been discriminated against.

  • The board then had to publicly deny that they fired their chief executive because she was transgender.

  • They assured everyone that AWP’s endowments “remain strong” and that all is for the best, in this best of all possible worlds.

So … is it really surprising that AWP suffered financially from all of this chaos?


The money is not the problem, and neither is Chloe Schwenke. The governance is the problem. The internal culture of the organization has broken down, and it’s been replaced by a culture that lacks accountability, transparency, and, most importantly, virtue.

In March 2018, I issued an open letter that was critical of AWP’s decision to fire its long-serving director in a hotel lobby, for which I received some rather extreme comments on my Facebook page, and some curious missives from David Haynes, then chair of the AWP board. A petition signed by hundreds of program directors, sponsors, donors, and AWP members was circulated, demanding some explanation for Fenza’s firing and calling for a reasonable severance, but it fell on deaf ears.

At the core of my questions surrounding Fenza’s bizarre termination was the issue of culture. The fact is that you just don’t fire people that way — and not because the white guy must always get a golden parachute, but because it’s what’s best for the organization. You take the person who’s been there for 30 years, you give them their watch and an NDA, and you allow for an easy transition of power.

Here’s what you don’t do: you don’t haul a guy down to a hotel lobby, 1,000 miles from his home, after he’s been on his feet representing you for 96 hours, and fire him in public in front of his friends and colleagues. You don’t do it. Nobody does it. Outside of mob hits (or maybe The Apprentice), there is no management theory on earth that says, “So, you have to fire someone. Do it in the most humiliating way, and in the most public place possible!” You don’t do that to anyone. It betrays a corrupt, vicious, and incompetent culture, and it raises too many questions.

For me, the questions it raised were not about David Fenza (or later Christian Teresi, and now Chloe Schwenke), but about governance. Who is running this place, and how are they making decisions? And, if they are capable of firing a guy in a hotel lobby, what else are they capable of?

  • Are they capable of running the organization into the ground?

  • Are they capable of lying about their activities?

  • Are they capable of wasting the millions of dollars in AWP’s reserve?

  • Are they capable of cronyism, or operating with significant conflicts of interest?

The excuse the AWP board is using for removing Schwenke is that there were problems with the finances and unspecified decisions Schwenke made. There are two problems with that excuse:

1. The board knew they were appointing a person with no relevant experience as interim director. 

I know many people — even AWP members — don’t quite understand what AWP is outside the conference. But you do actually need to know things to hold the director’s job, and it’s not an easy job to do. Leading AWP requires, first of all, that you have a fairly robust knowledge of the field — knowledge about writing programs, literary presses, writers’ conferences, and literature in general.

For a human rights advocate like Schwenke, this must’ve seemed like a foreign country.  I’m sure she’s a fine person, but ask yourself: Would you put a person with her credentials at the helm of the American Medical Association? Wouldn’t you try to find someone with a relevant degree in medicine or public health?  Well … why wouldn’t AWP’s board try to find someone who’d actually been through a writing program to lead an organization dedicated to advancing the interests of writing programs? Is there a national shortage of these individuals? 

How could Schwenke be expected to skillfully lead AWP when she first had to traverse an immense learning curve, after which she might only have a grasp on the rudimentary vernacular? She didn’t possess an advanced degree in writing, or even a relevant undergraduate degree. She wasn’t from the literary or publishing world. She simply could not have understood a wide variety of issues of importance to AWP members, or even why they might have arisen as issues in the first place. She didn’t know the players, she couldn’t have been familiar with the literary infrastructure of the country, or the institutions that AWP has traditionally worked with (sometimes discreetly) to advance shared policy goals. The politics were unfamiliar, the history was unknown, and the challenges were entirely new.

On top of all that, she had no professional experience with trade associations — so she wasn’t versed, say, in the organization’s funding structure, or its internal history, or its systems, or million-dollar hotel contracts, or convention centers, or the logistics of drayage, or publishing realities. She didn’t have the big knowledge — the knowledge of the field — and she didn’t have the little knowledge: the technical expertise required to run a trade association.

So how on earth did this person become interim director of AWP? Especially when there are literally hundreds of potential candidates out there from inside AWP’s own community — people who have directed writing programs, served on AWP’s board, operated literary presses, edited literary magazines, organized literary conferences, and run literary organizations — and they’re not all (or even mostly) white men, either. It was just a very strange choice. It smacked of some board member saying, “I know this person,” and then just throwing her in there, rather than any sort of considered decision. 

2. The board approved of Schwenke’s performance as interim director.

AWP’s board had a full year to try Schwenke out, during which time Schwenke restructured the staff, dissolved the organization’s most important institutional relationship, eliminated much of AWP’s institutional memory, and oversaw a staff exodus — one that did not end with Christian Teresi. The staff was then expanded dramatically, and large, ongoing expenses were added to AWP’s budget. It’s difficult to believe that Schwenke took these actions without consulting the board. At the very least, the board was aware of what was happening. The board observed all of this, and then they chose to promote her.

In the announcement of Chloe Schwenke’s appointment, made in April 2019, board chair Robin Reagler said, “The Trustees believe [Chloe] is poised to make a phenomenal contribution to AWP in the coming years, strengthening our programs, partnerships, and resources and consistently improving the quality of service that AWP provides to the creative writing community.” Given such statements, it’s pretty hard for the board to now manufacture distance between itself and its hand-picked executive. If there were indeed “multiple financial and workplace issues,” as the board claims, then these issues would have to go beyond what is already publicly known. If such issues exist, they would only reflect even more poorly on the board’s judgment and oversight.


AWP’s board, now led by Bonnie Culver, has decided to “move to a new administrative model” in which there is no executive director. AWP’s board thinks it would be better if AWP operated “like a theater” or an “arts organization,” where you have two powerless managing directors, each with nebulous job descriptions, reporting to a board that assumes complete operational control over the organization. After all, lots of folks work like this!

No, they don’t. This whole scheme betrays a stunning ignorance of what AWP is and how arts organizations and theaters actually work.

First of all, AWP is not an arts organization. It is an association. You can tell because the word appears in its name. There are many similar organizations based in the DC area, and they all do pretty much the same thing AWP does, only for plumbers or architects or emergency room doctors. They have publications and conferences and advocacy wings. Associations are formed to advance the interests of some faction of society — in this case, writers, and particularly writers in academia. AWP was founded in 1967 to help promote and proliferate creative writing programs at colleges and universities. Such programs are commonplace now, but they were rare birds until the explosion in the late 1990s and early 2000s, which was largely the result of painstaking work by David Fenza.

So AWP’s raison d’être is to advance the interests of this constituency. That is its first job, its second job, and its third job. AWP is on the side of high standards, small class sizes, and better compensation for teachers of writing. It is on the side of students of creative writing. It is on the side of literary magazines. It is on the side of writers. AWP does not exist to create new works of art but to support those who do. It’s not an arts organization. Why would you structure it like one?

But even if it were an arts organization, no arts organization runs the way AWP’s board describes. It’s true that theaters have a twin leadership model, but the keyword there is leadership. In theaters, artistic directors and executive directors have authority over their respective spheres, and they don’t ask the board’s permission on operational details. The artistic director doesn’t seek the board’s approval on the slate of plays or casting choices, and the executive director hires and fires people at will.

No mature nonprofit has a board with operational control of the organization. Yes, the board has ultimate authority over the organization — they can remove the senior leadership and even, in some cases, dissolve the corporation — but they don’t get involved in the day-to-day business. The board doesn’t have the time or information to do that kind of work. The board is there to help set general strategic policy (in partnership with the staff leadership), to provide high-level oversight, and to support the organization, either financially or by providing badly needed skills (such as legal or investment expertise). The board is not there to decide which toner cartridge to buy, or which keynote speaker should appear at the conference, or which junior staffer to hire or fire. That’s not what boards are for — it’s what executives are for: to execute.

Board members are part-time trustees. The staff is devoted, full-time, toward the realization of the organization’s goals. The board essentially invests institutional power in an individual and entrusts that individual to execute the organization’s mission. In a sense, the executive director is the only staff member who really exists. All the other staff positions are just offshoots of executive power — they exist because the executive director creates them. The executive director distributes his or her own power to create staff positions that can perform discrete functions — like manage conference registration, take care of the books, or design the website. The executive director oversees the staff, the board oversees the director, and the membership oversees the board. The board does not have an executive function, and if a board assumes that role, something has broken down.

Good executive directors are critical to organizational success. In healthy organizations, executive directors work in partnership with the board to identify strategic priorities, problems, and solutions. Executive directors are essential to shaping good policy because they have a keen understanding of the logistical impediments to the realization of those polices — such as the limits of resources, the strengths of the staff, and the feedback from constituencies. A group of part-time trustees, all with different opinions, spread out all over the country, and disconnected from the day-to-day operational realities, is simply not capable of doing that.

The AWP board wants to have two “managing directors,” both of whom have no authority to actually manage anything and who have to seek the board’s permission to use the restroom. One of them doesn’t even report to the office but works remotely. There’s no “model” for this — it’s a new organizational structure in which no one is in charge and no one is accountable. It is a recipe for chaos. Unfortunately, AWP — an organization I once loved dearly — appears to have a growing appetite for chaos.

Now both Schwenke and the board have released cryptic statements about the state of the organization’s finances. Even if AWP somehow ended up in the black for FY19 (and I’m told it did not), things will only get worse. Much worse. If instead it ran a deficit, the board will either have to take out a line of credit, thereby borrowing money to pay off borrowed money, or they will need to take the funds from the reserve, thereby reducing the capital that generates income for the organization and eroding a precarious safety net.

This is a classic “downward spiral,” and it cannot go on indefinitely. AWP’s reserves would actually mask the problem, because they would allow the organization to spend like this for a few years without feeling any pain. The first year the problem might be bad, but it would still be manageable. Say there’s a $200,000 deficit. Well, the board could raid the reserve, or they could get a loan. They’d tell everyone about how they were “investing in ourselves.” But then, the next year, things get worse — the deficit climbs to $300,000. So they raid the reserve. “These things take time!” As they do this, the reserve begins generating less and less interest revenue, and the expenses keep climbing. The organization loses all discipline, because there are no immediate consequences to its actions.

But eventually the music stops, and there is no more money left in the reserve. The organization has let the problem get worse and worse, because it hasn’t been forced to deal with the reality of its overspending. Reality always wins. One day, the organization simply runs out of money to keep financing its excessive spending. It literally runs out of cash — cash to pay salaries, cash to pay hotels, cash to pay writers and speakers.

At this point, the organization is forced to pay the price — not just for that one last year of profligacy, but for all the years it allowed the problem to grow beyond its ability to control. The organization contracts violently, and it fires most of its staff, starting, of course, with the executive director, who receives all of the blame. Everyone left takes a pay cut, and the organization cuts everywhere it can. No more professional development, no more computers, no new software, no new programs. Everyone’s job description is insane — you’re the person who manages the conference (for many years, this was one person), and you’re also the development director and the HR coordinator and the one who sets up chairs at events. (Actually, I think I held that exact job at AWP in 2003…)

In other words, at the very moment it desperately needs growth, the organization lacks the people and the money to achieve it, and whoever remains is jumping into lifeboats. The smart ones get out early, and everyone gets out as soon as they can. You go through a process of de-professionalization, where the organization loses all of its institutional knowledge, all its expertise, and is left filling senior positions with entry-level people. Everyone keeps quitting on you, because Applebee’s pays better, so you’re constantly retraining people. You also have trouble finding people to serve on the board, because … well, who wants to serve on the board of an organization like this?

Lest you think this is some far-fetched, alarmist scenario, remember that this was precisely the situation AWP faced during the early ’90s when David Fenza came on board and turned it around. AWP spent many painful years digging out of a hole, and then it began socking money away in a reserve. It did this so it could make prudent investments (such as spending several hundreds of thousands of dollars to relocate to Maryland, money now totally wasted), and in case some external calamity befell the organization, such as the financial crisis of 2008. Building that reserve required a lot of discipline and sacrifice, over a sustained period of time.

Is AWP now tearing up that safety net? If so, it got there in 18 months, and the blame belongs to the board that made the decisions, including previous board chairs David Haynes and Robin Reagler, who have resigned, and current board chair Bonnie Culver.


Sometimes nonprofit organizations run deficits. That’s not unusual. What would be unusual here is the speed at which things have turned sour, the scale of spending required to achieve it, and the lack of transparency surrounding the situation.

Even without reviewing its audited financial statements, one can reasonably conclude that AWP has been on a spending spree recently. First, it hired a bunch of consultants for … well, nothing. Or, rather, to help draft a vague strategic plan that contains no budget or implementation schedule. Then it hired consultants to scour the country and find a new director, only to reappoint its interim director instead. It could have skipped the first part and saved a whole lot of cash.

Admittedly, I don’t know how much all of this cost, and to be fair, these are one-time layouts. Maybe the search was a polite fiction, familiar to academics everywhere, meant to sort of say, “We got our person, but politically we have to do a search, so here’s the search.” Maybe $50,000 or $60,000 wasted. No big deal.

But then AWP severed its relationship with the University of Maryland. So here are some of the expenses that won’t go away:

  • Human Resources. AWP can pay a third-party vendor to manage its benefits programs, but it will no longer have the advantage of participating in a huge state program, as it did at George Mason University and the University of Maryland. Now it will have to negotiate a benefits package on its own. So, instead of pooling its bargaining power with 200,000 employees, it’s going to try doing it with 25. Guess what? That’s a lot more expensive, and it’s no less complicated. You also don’t have a big state bureaucracy to manage your programs, to select a health care provider, to ensure compliance, and all that. You have to pay a third party instead, and you’re supposed to have a board committee overseeing the retirement plan (which I highly doubt AWP does). Ideally, you’d have a full-time staffer devoted to it — not just heath care, but also retirement plans and leave policies and employee grievances and payroll and all the rest of it. It’s not unusual for benefits to cost 30–40 percent of each person’s salary. That number will climb and climb, and it will never go away.

  • Investment Management. AWP has a few million dollars in reserve, which was built up during David Fenza’s long tenure. That money used to be managed by a university foundation, which stuck it in conservative instruments and had lots of oversight and all the rest of it. It didn’t even charge that much. The infrastructure was quite robust — there were teams of investment experts, layers of oversight on top of them, transparency, and regular reporting. The larger pool of investments provided by the university gave AWP access to a diverse range of investment vehicles. In 2019, the University of Maryland Foundation boasted returns of 18 percent on their investments. For AWP, that would’ve been a windfall of $500,000 to $700,000, depending on the size of its holdings. But AWP chose to sever its relationship with Maryland, because AWP could do a better job of things. So instead it did … what exactly? Where is that money now? How much did AWP earn on its investments in FY19? Who is watching over them? Is there a committee on the board filled with financial experts and bankers and the like? Even if there is, AWP’s reserve isn’t large enough to be cheaply managed. Large investment firms won’t bother with it, so they’ll have to go to a small money manager, who will likely charge substantial fees — probably in the range of $40,000 to $50,000 a year at least, and that’s before all the fees associated with buying and selling securities. AWP will have a more limited range of investment options. Investment management is complicated. You need an investment committee and an investment policy statement to guide your manager and to set appropriate limits on risk. Does AWP even know what it’s invested in now? Is the fund being actively or passively managed? Is its board sophisticated enough to do this in a responsible fashion?

  • Rent. Do you know how much it costs to pay retail for prime office space in the DC metro area? AWP is about to find out! For the next couple of years, it will enjoy the long-term lease David Fenza negotiated with the University of Maryland, which gave AWP a significant discount. But when that lease is up, AWP will have to go out on the market. And I doubt Maryland will be likely to give the organization a break this time. Occupancy will be a significant cost going forward.

These are some hard fixed costs that AWP can look forward to in the coming years. They’re substantial, and they’ll get more substantial as time goes by. It translates to hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional costs every year.

All of this would be troubling enough, but then AWP went on a hiring spree. First, the existing staff all received raises, after many of them had already received adjustments during the move to Maryland. Then AWP expanded the staff, creating multiple new salaried positions. Let’s be conservative and say they’re all at $50,000, with 30 percent extra for health care, retirement, et cetera. So, maybe $65,000 each for five new positions. That’s $325,000 of new fixed costs each year, on top of the hundreds of thousands of dollars the organization is now going to spend as a result of ending its relationship with Maryland, on top of the money it wasted on consultants.

AWP has a $3.5 million budget (or, at least, it used to). If you add $400,000 to $500,000 to its annual expenses, you can find yourself in the red pretty quickly — and the big-ticket costs haven’t even been incurred yet. Those will start to show up in 2021, 2022, and 2023, when the full price of the board’s foolishness will begin to be realized.

To add massive, ongoing, and ever-increasing expenses like these, you need to be growing. Is AWP growing? Nope — actually, it’s contracting, and fairly rapidly. The 2018 annual report (which is a year late in being publicly posted, but a copy of which I have seen) shows that membership revenue declined by seven percent (which to my knowledge is unprecedented), and its contributions decreased by roughly 30 percent. These drops are far more disturbing than the 17 percent decline in conference revenues, although that, too, is significant. If AWP is losing members, losing donors, and experiencing smaller conferences, it’s not an ideal time to dramatically expand the staff or to shower everyone with raises — especially when there are huge new costs coming down the pike.

AWP’s board oversaw all of this.


How can this board restore the organization’s health when they don’t seem to even acknowledge the sickness? Schwenke’s departure is only the most recent in a series of escalating catastrophes, most of which have been highly visible, and all of which have damaged AWP’s reputation. Through it all, AWP’s board has been unresponsive — even dismissive — of any questions about their behavior, and has only issued sunny platitudes. (In a message to the members, Bonnie Culver offered her contact information for people with questions. I’ve inquired multiple times, including in the last week when I solicited comment for this piece, and I have yet to receive a response.) I fear that, even if they are forced to do something by outraged public opinion, it will be a reluctant, half-hearted, or self-defeating action, at best.

The correct thing for the board to do now is to accept accountability, to perform a rigorous (and honest) self-assessment of the last two years that names their mistakes, and to present a detailed plan for restoring AWP’s health, with timelines, deliverables, metrics for success, and a budget. They should move forward in a spirit of complete transparency, and they should engage AWP’s various stakeholders in diagnosing the problem and finding a solution. They should also accept that they’ve completely lost the confidence of many stakeholders and that, for the sake of the organization, they need to earn it back.

There is a way forward for AWP now, but it will likely require painful changes, starting with the governance of the organization. Many trustees, beginning with the officers, will need to step aside, and a strong executive director has to be recruited and given the power to effect unpleasant changes. This new executive director should be:

  1. Qualified (understands the field, understands writing programs, has a relevant degree).

  2. Experienced (has managed large cultural organizations with national reach).

  3. Successful (demonstrated by a track record of results in previous jobs).

  4. Of impeccable moral character (with references that do more than just confirm dates of employment).

It has to be somebody new, and probably from within AWP’s own community. AWP can’t go backward now for a whole host of reasons, including the toxic atmosphere the board has cultivated around many of its former champions. The organization needs a fresh perspective, and some obvious candidates are too polarizing. More division is not what AWP needs.

Whoever the new director is, my advice would be simple: go back to AWP’s core mission and stop trying to solve all social injustice everywhere. There are plenty of fine organizations devoted to progressive causes. Even though AWP’s membership is strongly progressive, the organization does not exist to advance any political ideology — except, perhaps, robust public funding for the arts. Just concentrate on helping writers and writing programs — even if you have to tell those programs to adhere to rigorous standards, which some of them will not like. In the long run, it will pay off for everyone. Do something good for writers and be satisfied with that.

It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be cheap. As I warned in 2018, nobody in their right mind would take this job, and in 2019, the situation looks even worse. So the new director is going to have to be well compensated for their labor, and they’re going to need to have a robust, long-term contract that clearly articulates their powers and insures their job security. The board would be able to get rid of this person, of course, but not without paying them, and not without both parties signing a non-disparagement agreement. Everything has to be in writing, and there should be stiff penalties for bad behavior on the board’s part. The new director will have to immediately restructure the staff, recruit an entirely new board, reshape its governance, install new internal systems, and begin to restore AWP’s culture.

I don’t see any alternative. The current board can proceed on their present course for two, maybe three years before the problems become so severe that they will be forced to do this anyway, only with fewer resources and less time.

It’s an unfortunate situation, but AWP is, indeed, on the brink.


Matt Burriesci worked at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) between 1999–2011, during which time he performed nearly every job, including acting executive director (2009–2010).


Banner image: "Car off cliff sign" is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

LARB Contributor

Matt Burriesci worked at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) between 1999–2011, during which time he performed nearly every job, including Acting Executive Director (2009–2010). Years after leaving AWP, he wrote a satirical novel about a dysfunctional DC-based literary nonprofit (Nonprofit), which, in a blind contest, won the AWP Award for Best Novel. He began his career at the Tony Award–winning Chicago Shakespeare Theater and is presently executive director of the Providence Athenaeum.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!